Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not for the Faint of Heart

Last night a dear writer friend and I drove down to Denver to attend an agent panel sponsored by SCBWI, during which two top-notch locally based agents, Kristin Nelson and Kate Shafer Testerman, read first pages submitted by the attendees, responding to them exactly as they would in their day-to-day work as agents: that is, stopping exactly at that point at which they had lost interest, at which they were no longer compelled to read on. The event was held at the darling historic Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library (an original Carnegie library dating from 1918), but it was not a smiley event. It was mesmerizing - and terrifying. Both agents reminded everyone at the outset of the evening that although they do not consider themselves at all to be brutal people, this kind of session can be "really brutal." Last year, Kate read 3,800 queries, from which she requested 74 full manuscripts, and signed two clients. Kristin, with a similar volume of submissions, signed one.

I didn't want to have my first pages read. And as I had just had an agent agree to represent me this very week, I didn't feel that I HAD to. But in solidarity to my friend, I did. I was the very first to go down to dismissal - thank goodness the readings were anonymous! "I'm on notice," one of the agents said after a few lines, meaning, "on notice to stop reading." "I'm starting to waffle." They did let the reading go to the full two pages, which was either a triumph for me, or because they weren't yet warmed up for the evening. But they both said they wouldn't have read on from that point : "I'd stop here. I'm not interested in the scene. There's nothing wrong with the writing, but there's nothing overwhelming or compelling." Ouch! At least, they said, the writer hadn't committed the cardinal sin of starting with a character waking up a dream (my character was startled out of surreptitious in-class reading).

The next author to be read, poor thing, began with a character waking up from a dream. Double ouch!

Here are some other things I learned to avoid in a manuscript opening:
1. Exclamation marks
2. Name brands mentioned (unless deliberately to establish a certain kind of character)
3. Faux conflict that has nothing to do with the central story line
4. Unbelievable details in the writing: "Darkness crept out of the open doorway." How can darkness creep out of a doorway?
5. A forbidden attic
6. A transparent warning for the character to stay away from the one place she is of course going to go
7. Lack of immediate connection with the characters
8. "Uneven" quality of the writing
9. Too much intensity in description of unimportant objects
10. Need for a clearer sense of exactly where the character is and what she is doing
11. Changing out of one scene too quickly into another scene
12. Focusing too much on the character's quirks rather than on the character herself
13. Too much alliteration
14. Too staccato a rhythm of the sentences
15. Feeling like an adult writing down to middle-graders
16. Sounding too much like "This will be educational for children!"
17. Cliched opening: "If only I hadn't done x, everything would be different."
18. Typos and misspellings
19. Anthropomorphized animals
20. Starting with an action-packed scene and then pulling away for intrusive back-story

I stopped taking notes after that!

I have to say that I agreed with the agents on every point, just about, except that I do think they dismissed a couple of the manuscripts too quickly (including mine, of course!), as not suitable for middle-grade readers, when the manuscripts were clearly intended to be chapter books for younger readers (though this is perfectly appropriate for them to do as agents - they both do represent work only on the older end of the children's spectrum; they had explicitly said ahead of time that they don't do picture books, but hadn't said ahead of time, "or chapter books, either.") I don't think my first two pages that I shared, the first draft of a book I started writing this week, were all that compelling and sparkling.

Whenever I attend one of our philosophy department hiring meetings, I always come away thinking, "How did they ever hire ME?" I came away from yesterday's panel thinking that it is VERY VERY VERY hard to produce writing good enough in the first paragraph or two to take away the breath of savvy agents who read thousands of mansucripts a year. How did anyone ever publish ME?

But - somebody did. And somebody - lots of somebodies - published my dear writer friend, too, even though the two agents made similarly short work of her opening page. At the end of the evening, part of me wanted to go home and write better books; part of me wanted to go up to Kate and Kristin (who were really as kind as they could be through their absolute, uncompromising honesty) and say : "Just to let you know, I found out today that my most recent book, How Oliver Olson Changed the World, was named as an ALA Notable Children's Book of the year."

And it was! As this happened more than a week out from the fairy dust, I'm not attributing this one to the fairies. I'm attributing this one to me.


  1. These are great tips. Thanks for sharing! Sounds like a brutal yet helpful event.

  2. Congratulations on How Oliver Olson Changed the World, being named as an ALA Notable Children's Book of the year. I love Oliver! It's a wonderful book!

  3. I heard from some of her later students that Judith Thomson used to draw a line in pencil while reading even graduate student papers. The line represented where she stopped reading, because she didn't think continuing would be worth it. Can you confirm that?

    The thing is I think we all do this when we're swamped and are permitted to. I certainly do it for the writing samples in graduate admissions files--there's often a point, often very early on, where I stop reading and move on to the next one, and the objective is to keep me interested and reading for as long as possible.

    Maybe a similar workshop would be helpful for our undergrads applying to graduate school, to help them polish up their writing samples?

  4. I never heard that about JJT, Eric - could well be true! And I don't know if I could survive another "here is where I give up on you forever" workshop! Though I agree it would be helpful.